Coming Nov. 2: Armageddon!
With California voters facing 16 propositions, including 11 ballot initiatives, the familiar cry of apocalypse is being heard across the state. Newspapers warn of voter confusion. Legislators bemoan that matters best left for the Legislature are being decided by -- gasp, of all people -- the people.
Whether you vote yes or no, you are told the end is near. If ballot measures pass, the state will be overrun with new troubles: billions in new public debt, Louisiana politicians, taxes on millionaires, polluting businesses, freed felons, taxes on cellphones, DNA-collecting police, human clones, bankrupt restaurants, Indian casinos on every block and slot machines at horse tracks. If ballot measures go down, we'll be left with secret government deals, bankrupt local governments, children without hospitals, not enough emergency rooms, jails full of the innocent, Indian casinos and the dashed dreams of the paralyzed who had hoped to walk again through stem cell research.
In advance of certain democratic damnation, let me suggest that the state's voters cheer up, take a deep breath and pass the popcorn!
The dirty secret of direct democracy in California is that ballot propositions are often little more than movies in political disguise, and deserve to be viewed that way. How can one argue such a thing when we live in "Paradise Lost" (the title of a book by one august commentator about how ballot measures have all but ruined California)? When "Democracy Derailed" (another book, same subject, another august commentator) has laid waste to the noble traditions of republican government given us by the founding fathers (right after they enshrined slavery in the Constitution and denied women the franchise, of course)?
To the doomsayers, I say: Look at the numbers on ballot initiatives, the main pillar of direct democracy. Most initiatives have about as much direct effect on state law and policy as the latest film featuring Kirsten Dunst.
The Legislature passes hundreds of new laws each year, but most of the several dozen initiatives that receive a title from the attorney general's office don't even qualify for the ballot. Of those that do make it to voters, most lose. And even those that pass often are invalidated wholly or partly by the courts.
From 1960 to 2000, California voters approved just 55 initiatives of the hundreds that were attempted. Thirty-six of those were challenged in court, and fewer than half survived. As four California academics demonstrated in their 2001 book, "Stealing the Initiative," even those that got by voters and judges could be ignored or subverted by legislators, governors or other policymakers. The fundamental fact to remember is this: Winning initiatives do not implement or enforce themselves.
So what accounts for the "end of the world" conventional wisdom? Certainly a handful of measures -- Proposition 13, term limits -- were implemented, albeit reluctantly, by politicians and have had a profound effect on the state. But a big part of the answer lies in the nature of marketing.
Everyone involved in the ballot business has an interest in exaggerating the effects, good or bad, of nearly every proposition.
Those urging a "yes" vote make extravagant claims about the problems their measure would solve. Those fighting ballot measures are in effect pitching horror movies: This harmless-looking ballot measure is really a giant Godzilla with 17 heads.
Actually, movies have much in common with ballot measures. Both are sold as events through television ad campaigns and carefully tested with every conceivable demographic through tracking polls. Some ballot measures are blockbusters with stars attached (think of the Proposition 71 ads with Michael J. Fox). Movies, in turn, are marketed for their electoral power -- come see what's No. 1 at the box office.
Many ballot measures, like movies, have their content watered down to attract the largest possible audience. Lowest-common-denominator marketing can produce victory at the ballot box or box office. (But dumbed-down initiatives are often vaguely worded, which can make them easier for courts to invalidate and for politicians to ignore.)
And just as Americans enjoy following the box office returns, the races involving ballot measure campaigns often make for delightfully absurd theater. A ballot measure or movie can spark competitors that rely on similar premises. That's how we get dueling measures on the nature of election primaries (Propositions 60 and 62 on the November ballot) and Indian gambling (Propositions 68 and 70) -- or competing asteroid apocalypse films: "Deep Impact" and ... what was that other one called?
Oh, right -- "Armageddon." I loved Bruce Willis in that.